The Nature Conservancy Faces Double-Whammy Government Investigation
Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), last week sent a letter to the Conservancy Chairman, Steven J. McCormick, asking for records of their financial dealings over the past ten years.
The committee even wants social security numbers of people "who received loans and land from the nonprofit."
The senators wrote that the Post's articles triggered "serious questions about TNC's practices regarding land sales, purchases and donations; executive compensation; and corporate governance…"
The committee is particularly interested in sweetheart land deals TNC made with current or former trustees. The committee will also seek information about The Conservancy from the Internal Revenue Service.
The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit organization, although it has assets estimated in the billions of dollars.
The Environmental Protection Agency has announced it is conducting an investigation of whether TNC has illegally used EPA grant money "to subsidize the purchase of lands for the benefit of Board members, trustees, or employees."
The investigation is a result of a complaint filed by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a public interest legal group located in Washington, D.C. EPA has distributed over two billion taxpayer dollars to 14 non-profit special interest groups since 1993.
EPA Investigating Nature Conservancy at Landmark's Request
HERNDON, Va., July 17, 2003/PRNewswire/ -- Based on a complaint filed by Landmark Legal Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency has informed Landmark that it will conduct an in-depth investigation, including on-site reviews, to determine if the Nature Conservancy has used any EPA grant money to subsidize the purchase of lands for the benefit of Board members, trustees or employees.
In her letter to Landmark, Linda J. Fisher, Acting EPA Administrator, stated, in part:
"EPA's Office of Grants and Debarment (OGD) will ... initiate a more in- depth review of this issue. The review will examine in greater detail not only whether the Conservancy grants were used for land acquisition activities, but will conduct an on-site review of the Conservancy's administrative systems. OGD expects to complete its work within ninety days and will then inform you of the results of the review. If the review provides evidence of waste, fraud, or abuse, OGD will refer the matter to the Office of the Inspector General and take necessary administrative action."
In another major development, the EPA has announced that it has completely revamped the manner in which it processes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to ensure compliance with the law and responsiveness to requesters. The EPA undertook this action after it was sued by Landmark for wholesale violations of the FOIA, including the widespread destruction of information sought by Landmark relating to the implementation of last-minute environmental regulations by the previous administration. Landmark hauled the EPA before a federal judge to stop it from destroying data on computer hard drives, erasing back-up taping systems that had preserved email communications, among other things.
Landmark president, Mark R. Levin, said: "The EPA's investigation of the Nature Conservancy and its implementation of new FOIA rules are important first steps toward ensuring that the Agency is accountable for its disbursement of over $2 billion in taxpayer funds to non-profit special interest groups, and that it's subject to public oversight by preserving and making available information that reveals its decision-making processes."
Landmark is a public interest legal group with offices in Herndon, VA and Kansas City, MO.
SOURCE Landmark Legal Foundation
/CONTACT: Eric Christensen of Landmark Legal Foundation, +1-703-689-2370/
Nature Conservancy Faces Panel Review
___ The Nature Conservancy ___
This Washington Post series describes The Nature Conservancy's transformation from a grassroots group to a corporate juggernaut.
Joe Stephens and David B. Ottaway
In a letter sent yesterday to Conservancy President Steven J. McCormick, the Senate Finance Committee asked for records reaching back a decade and spanning 18 broad topics. Along with general explanations of Conservancy policies, the committee is requesting information as detailed as the Social Security numbers of individuals who received loans and land from the nonprofit.
The letter is signed by committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking Democrat Max Baucus (Mont.). The senators said in May that they might consider legislation after The Washington Post reported on a range of Conservancy practices, including the group's sale of scenic property to trustees who then made tax-deductible donations to the organization.
In the seven-page letter to the Nature Conservancy, the senators cite "serious questions about TNC's practices regarding land sales, purchases and donations; executive compensation; and corporate governance, among others."
As part of its review, the committee plans to seek information independently about the Conservancy from the Internal Revenue Service, a committee staff member said yesterday.
The Arlington-based Conservancy said in a statement that it "has been in discussion with Committee staff, and has conveyed to them that the Conservancy will work cooperatively and expeditiously with the Committee to address all matters within the scope of the inquiry."
The Conservancy also pointed out that, independent of the inquiry, the group had thoroughly reviewed its practices, and its board of governors had made several changes.
The Senate letter includes more than 100 questions and requests for information, some of which could elicit hundreds of pages in response.
The letter asks for information on all of the Conservancy's land deals with private individuals, including so-called "conservation buyer" deals. In those deals, the Conservancy bought raw land, added development restrictions, then resold the land at a reduced price. The buyers then made tax-deductible gifts to the nonprofit.
Many of the conservation buyers were current or former Conservancy trustees, who built homes on the rustic sites. When the Conservancy board announced major policy changes on June 13, it included a prohibition on land sales to trustees and other Conservancy insiders.
The committee wants to examine details of all loans the Conservancy has made in the past decade, including those extended to a power company and other for-profit corporations. Its request covers a dozen home loans to Conservancy employees, including $1.5 million extended to McCormick and a no-interest $500,000 mortgage extended to California state director Graham Chisholm.
The senators also want to examine all audits of Conservancy operations from the past five years. The committee seeks details of land sales to government agencies, including appraisals and any profits banked by the Conservancy. In particular, the letter asks for a list of grants and contracts involving three nonprofits: the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; the National Forest Foundation; and the National Park Foundation.
The committee asked that the material be submitted within a month.
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